Into the dark: traveling the world as a night photographer

by Jun 6, 2023Photography

Pink Cadillac Nelson NIght Photo

Travel photography doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. Sometimes the true soul of a place comes alive after dark. Enjoying and exploring the night skies when traveling is a challenge and a joy, allowing a night photographer to return with truly memorable images.

Turning my head upward to gaze at the stars sparkling above, I inhale the night deeply. Under dark skies I feel at home. With a smile, I go about setting up my camera gear – tripod popped open, camera mounted, remote plugged in, flashlights in the right pockets…. This is a night photography routine that has somehow become comforting in its familiarity, even with the omnipresent anxiety about what the night’s sky will bring, if urban lights will behave how you want, and what photographic dreams will be realized – or frustrated.

Bodie Star Cicles Night Travel Photo

This night at Bodie Island Lighthouse in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, I was intent on a pure night sky with star circles for my night photography adventure. But you can’t control the weather and part way through my 75 minutes+ of short exposures, the clouds rolled in. I let the camera continue anyway, but in post-processing and combining the photos (“stacking” to create the circles) I ended up eliminating many of the last ones to not just have pure clouds. I frankly ended up with a much better photo with the added interest of the moving clouds.

When traveling, photography doesn’t end when the sun goes down. For me, the process of capturing memorable photos often begins as the night culture of a city comes to life, stars hover over a grassy meadow, or the Milky Way emerges to move across the sky. Colorful sunsets may grab the world’s eyes on social media, but my favorite colors in travel photography are enveloped in black, the black of the night that lets the stars and lights sparkle in my photos.

Dresden Christmas Market Night Travel Photo

The action and energy of a city or event at night is pure magic when out seeking travel photos in the dark. Here, at the famous Dresden Striezelmarkt (Christmas market), I climbed up to a viewing platform and showed the festive action with a longer exposure to reveal the movement of the people and Ferris wheel.

Black may represent a struggle between good and bad, happy and sad, or certainty and doubt; however, for me it represents a clean palette waiting to be filled by the colors of the night. Since black is the absorption of all colors, it is in reality no color and yet every color. You only need to coax out the colors – occasionally adding a little light painting magic of your own. Sometimes that means a simple “kiss” of light from a flashlight brushed across the façade of a building to open the shadows. And sometimes it means creating an entirely new artistic dimension to a travel destination.

Travertine Hot Springs Travel Photo

Ah, what fun, albeit a pretty cold night in Bridgeport, Calif., in the Eastern Sierra. These natural hot springs are open 24/7. To create the illumination, I held my shutter open for several minutes while I walked into the frame and in three different places dipped a flashlight into the warm water to light it up. Water, toasty warm – outside air, below freezing! But adding light in just the right places can make a photo so fascinating!

From an urban jungle with hurry-hurry people and cars, to redwood forests filled with mystery and deep silence, to mountains and seasides with unending views of stars, the night and its blackness offer hope and peace. You have not experienced a place until you have seen its depths of darkness. Learning not to fear the darkness and refraining from immediately turning on a smartphone flashlight if darkness looms is a must when experimenting with photography at night. Your night vision needs up to 45 minutes to fully adapt to darkness and to allow you to see like a cat slinking through the shadows. Keep the lights out – and that includes lights of all colors such as red or green — and let yourself become aware of the details around you

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Moai Easter Island Night Photography

Traveling to Rapa Nui (better known to westerners as Easter Island), I had the beautiful and somewhat rare experience of being in the national parks and near the moai in the night for photography. Here, I listened to the Tongariki lineup of monolithic structures as the Milky Way danced overhead. What a beautiful place to get close to a true cultural wonder of this great planet.

As a night photographer, discovering what can be pulled from the black after most people have put away their cameras and called it a day is always a creative challenge. Traveling with a friend through Death Valley not long ago, we found it odd that a place that offers true solace and beauty at night is mostly emptied of travelers by then, all of whom retreat to the light in restaurants and hotel rooms.

Death Valley Dunes Night Travel Photography

Yes, these dunes in Death Valley are in fact worth staying up for. Forget escaping the dark for your hotel room or a restaurant: LIVE the dark skies in Death Valley National Park when traveling through it.

Night is precisely when the moonlight can create enthralling patterns of light and darkness on the dunes in Death Valley, and a ghost town can get extra spooky as you photograph the Milky Way overhead or add your own light painting and illumination under the stars.

Nelson Ghost Town Motel Sign At Night

Painting with lights for night photography does add depth and perspective. Here, again, at Nelson Ghost Town in Nevada, I opened the shutter, picked my way carefully through the cacti back to the church structure, flicked on its light for a few seconds, turned it off, walked to the sign, “painted” it with my flashlight for a few seconds, then returned to the car, where I flashed a light around the inside. Lastly, I put a quick spotlight on both headlights. Then I returned to my camera and closed the shutter. All that without getting attacked by a cactus in the dark! Notice that you never see me: Wait, what?!?! If you keep moving while in front of an open lens during long exposures, the camera won’t have enough time to perceive your presence and embed it into the scene. Also, wearing black clothing and non-reflective shoes helps turn you into a non-existent being in a photo, your own Casper the Friendly Ghost. You end up with more opportunities for creativity in travel photography – and the transformation into being a ghost feels like such a cool trick.

Sometimes I just opt for the peace of the moment, letting my camera play its magic that I have programmed it to do, allowing the solitude of the night to envelop my soul. Other times, I become enthralled with the movement on the street and the patterns of cars and streetlights. Sometimes, too, I can get a little crazy, playing with lights in what some might dub strange settings.

TV In A Ghost Town Night Travel

For this photo, I decided to just get a little crazy with my lights on the upper floor of an old barn structure at Nelson Ghost Town. I set up a light to blow out the empty TV shell, then placed myself in the chair as if I were watching TV. For this night travel photo, I had a helper to push the camera button for me instead of trying to race a timer. Nutty, laughable fun!

I love the simplicity of stars and the beauty of a Milky Way, but I also enjoy capturing the energy that exists in a place or a story that can be told when there are perhaps clouds hurrying across the sky, stars, or an urban landscape, people or not.

Nevad City At Night Travel Photography

In the early days of Covid, I realized the quaint gold rush town of Nevada City would not have cars parked along the street to “ruin” a photo! It was probably the only time for THAT so I got myself there for a night photo. Had to wait awhile for ONE truck to saunter down the street, but that brought the energy needed to this travel photo. Now, when I look at this, I always think of those crazy first few months of the pandemic – and how I was still able to take advantage of them for a one-of-a-kind travel photo.

Road trips have recently become my comfort zone, a time to find myself and be with my night skies. Finding just the right spot in a non-familiar city when traveling can also present a challenge that I enjoy taking on. No matter where I am in the world, I am drawn to explore the night again and again, discovering the many colors held within the black and dabbling in the artistry I can find. And every time I reach out to the stars or into the night, a contented smile spreads across my face. Under dark skies, I feel at home.

About the cover photo: On a mostly cloudy night, I took advantage of the lack of stars at Nelson Ghost Town in Nevada by underexposing the overall photo with this Cadillac and then throwing some light on just that sexy tail fin. My camera was so low with such a wide-angle lens that I was scrunched down into the dirt behind it – all to capture this really intimate shot of the rear of this vintage pink Cadillac seemingly catapulting into the darkness.

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About The Author

Therese Iknoian

Passionate traveler, wordsmith, photographer, and observer of people and place, Therese lives a life full of all the above. Trained as a newspaper journalist and a member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning news team, she now applies those skills to feed her globe-trotting curiosity – and hopes her storytelling in photos and words encourages others to do the same. Winner of multiple awards for photos and stories, Therese loves to get outdoors, be personally immersed in adventurous experiences, and have a front-row spot with her camera and notebook to document stories that offer authentic insights about a place or its people. And she’s never met a cheesecake she doesn’t have to taste, a ghost town that doesn't demand exploration, or a trail that doesn't beckon.